The world is grappling with the rise of populism, and liberal democracies are facing an identity crisis. This is a unique problem of our times, and amongst different factors that have contributed to this, there is one that is the least talked about; the sheer dissatisfaction in younger people regarding politics. You don’t have to go too far, just find a student and ask a simple question— who is the finance minister of their state? Trust me, a majority of them wouldn’t know, not due to the lack of awareness; it’s just that they do not care. As a millennial myself, I belong to the boring minority in my friend circle who like to talk about politics. To any sceptic who doubts the intelligence of the people I hang out with, I can assure you that they are pretty smart in what they do. And that’s the central issue here; it’s not that younger people are too lazy to be interested in politics. On the contrary, a large chunk of young professionals or students with a bright future is disillusioned with the system. This deep distrust in politics and their complete apathy toward the working of democratic institutions should be a worrying prospect for any society living in a democracy. Younger people are getting more and more alienated from the system, and this is just helping populists all over the world.
There is enough data available to substantiate that point. Amongst many polls that look into the widespread perception of political systems, one such is the World Value Survey. The study shows that attachment to democracy has fallen over time, from one generation to the next. To take a straightforward question that was asked in the survey, “is it essential to live in a democracy?” The data revealed an insidious trend in a country like the United States, where we usually assume that democratic values are embedded. For Americans born in the 1930s, living in a democracy held sacred importance. Asked on a scale of 1 to 10 how important it is to them to live in a democracy, more than 70 per cent gave the highest answer. But then there is a generational decline. Among millennials — those born since the 1980s — fewer than 30 per cent say that living in a democracy is essential. The picture was similar in Europe, which indicates a crisis of trust in its population regarding the democratic system. Another poll conducted by Pew Research in 38 countries indicates that only 23% of the surveyed are “committed” to the idea of representative democracy. The picture in India is gloomy, as only 8% of the respondents were “committed”, while in western democracies the figure was 37%, which may sound better in comparison but is not. What these studies indicate is that there is a brewing discontent against democratic systems amongst people all across the world, but it is exceptionally high amongst the younger generation.
In his recent book The People vs Democracy, Yasha Mounk argues that there are a couple of reasons for this discontent amongst the young population. The simpler argument is that millennials belong to a generation that has not seen challenges of fascism and communism. It is because democracy was virtually served to them on a platter, is the reason they are not able to appreciate it. Another cause is that there has been a slower pace of economic growth in recent times. There is a growing feeling amongst younger people that they would not be able to increase the quality of their life compared to their parents, who benefited from economic growth in their times. This feeling aggravated by rising prices of living in urban areas and high rates of unemployment in developing economies like India.
It is not that young people are naturally cynical in their outlook; the leaders of our times have helped them harbour this cynicism. The political class in every democracy has over the time failed to lead the masses and help foster trust in the system. This has helped produce an image of the democratic system as inefficient, filled with red-tape, and above all run by self-interested politicians who do not care about the people. This is undoubtedly true to some extent. Politics in democracies has succumbed to the powerful elite with financial interests. Today the corporations, MNCs, pressure groups etc. exert influence over policy decisions in unprecedented ways. This is essentially making the democratic framework more and more detached from the popular will, a core principle of democracy.
This is where populists benefit the most. According to the World Value Survey, younger people (the ones who finally start participating in politics) are more inclined towards experimenting with radical politics than older people. This trend coincides with the rise of far-right parties in Europe and populists like Trump and Modi. In the Indian general election of 2014, a staggering 44% of young voters supported Modi. The same thumb rule can apply to other democracies, where the support for an alternative to mainstream politicians seems a good enough bet for many millennials. They look appealing because they have this ability to channel the frustration of the younger voters to their cause. And then there is authoritarian China which is flexing its power all around the globe. This creates this growing perception that it is okay to live in a country without political rights, provided it is efficient in its working and provides economic opportunities.
In the end, not everything is gloomy for the future of democracy, and it would be unintelligent to generalise an entire generation as undemocratic in spirit. What we should realise is that democratic framework is facing a shortfall in popularity amongst young people. This has the potential to turn into something horrible if not revamped soon. There is a debate amongst political scientists whether this detachment from politics is merely concerned with “government legitimacy,” or the popularity of particular administrations in younger people. But as the studies mentioned before suggest, people are now questioning “regime legitimacy,” or citizens’ attachment to democracy as a political system, more than ever before. It is at this juncture that we need the youth to stand up for the sake of the democratic values. On the contrary, they are the ones who are more sceptical about it than their parents.
This is a precarious situation, but it is indeed manageable. I feel that the first step needs to come from educational institutes. In schools today, civics as a subject is hardly taken seriously. This creates a fertile ground for ignorance about our political institutions amongst kids who pass out from high schools, without ever learning about what it means to live in a democracy. Then there are colleges where the academics (especially on the left) focus hugely on the deficiencies and the corruption in our societies and politics. While it is essential to teach about the problems our political system faces, it is also necessary to educate about its benefits too. Humanities departments in universities should also give a comparative analysis of our democratic system with other political experiments such as communism. Currently, the majority of students who enter universities pass out with a strong sense of disillusionment with the current state of our politics. A fair amount of that is genuine, but then this also pushes them against any involvement with the system itself. Therefore, we need more professionals to participate in politics. This may sound optimistic, but we need politics to become a field that is more open. Only then will millennials start trusting democracy as a system. And we do want the future custodians of this beautiful arrangement liking what it has achieved. Winston Churchill’s often quoted remark about democracy makes a valid point in our times,” it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.” Let’s hope that millennials don’t start getting ideas to try something else.